The success of my federal programs work depended on my being able to reach local projects around the state by car. Having no car, I was dependent on the kindness of strangers. This reflection expresses my frustration in the guise of a sociological analysis of the car as status symbol. Morty Schiff, a white volunteer in the "radio project," lent me his car whenever he was not using it. John Mudd, who had recruited me for the Tougaloo College Project, loaned me his car (a rather conspicuous late model Dodge GTO) while he spent time in the north in early 1965. With my own car, I was able to move to Panola County and work on the co-op. Until then, I was constantly trying to figure out how to get around to the projects.
Written in fall, 1964, word processed in 9\94
I almost got hung up over the car thing like everyone else. I'm kind of amazed both about how I almost got caught in it without knowing it, and how I ever got out of it really. The car thing is pretty simple. Cars have become a real status thing in the movement. The cars are part of the sncc fleet, so they don't really belong to anyone in particular, but they are assigned to projects, and really in most cases to the project director. Then they are seen as the personal property of the person, who looks at the car as his own, and becomes jealous of it use. The things that he used to do without a car he can no longer do, and other people around him begin to want the same privileges, and are immobilized by the absence of the car. The fact of the car belonging to the fleet works to increase the status value, because while certain individuals' use of the car is unchallenged, and people will only ask for the use of the car otherwise sitting in front of the house for only the most important of duties, others who are less acknowledged will find that while in charge of a car for a particular duty they will have someone come up and ask for the car. They will be told that the car belongs to sncc and not to them, the underlying logic being that they are in a better position to judge sncc's needs, which is true except that they aren't always doing this.
There's the feeling that seniority and experience (consisting very largely of very real and unduplicatable suffering and danger) have given one the right to demand certain privileges. It will never be articulated this way, but functions this way. It is one of the ways in which the old staff differentiates itself. Unfortunately the old staff is not a singular entity that can make this whole thing work smoothly. There are different stages, a funny hierarchy, which means that nearly always the one in charge of a car can be challenged for its use by another. This brings out a lot of bitterness and resentment of people pulling rank, always unspoken.
Then there's the conviction everyone begins to have that they can't get along without a car, which is what was happening to me. I had decided that there was nothing I could do except go to the projects, and that I needed a car to do this. As a matter of fact I really believed that I couldn't do anything without a car. So I arranged to use Morty's car while he was in New York. Then Courtland asked Morty for the car for the weekend to use for FDP, and Morty bowed to seniority. Because I knew Courtland would not feel responsible to me to get the car back on time, and I felt my project was important, I had Morty tell Courtland the car had to be back in order for me to drive to met Morty in Memphis.